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Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968)
Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968)

Freischwimmer 102

Details
Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968)
Freischwimmer 102
signed 'Wolfgang Tillmans' (on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
chromogenic print
89 1/2 x 67 1/4 in. (227.3 x 170.8 cm.)
Executed in 2004. This work is number one from an edition of one plus one artist's proof.
Provenance
Caroline Smulders, London
James Barron Art, Kent, CT
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Alex Berggruen
Alex Berggruen

Lot Essay

In Wolfgang Tillmans’s Freischwimmer 102, 2004, clouds of deep purple pool across the photographic surface, saturating the viewer in a sea of mesmerizing, pure color. Tillmans, who first arose to international prominence in the early 1990s with a photographic oeuvre fundamentally concerned with representation, has continually probed the possibilities and limitations of his medium. Inspired by his fascination with the materiality of the photographic surface and the occurrence of abstract forms in daily life, at the dawn of the millennium he began a full exploration into the abstract potential of photography, with a number of non-representational series that lyrically transcend the divide between painting and photography. These include the Blushes and Mental Pictures, both from 2000, and the Freischwimmer pictures, inaugurated in 2001, examples of which can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Currently the subject of a major touring retrospective at the Tate Modern, with his Freischwimmer photographs, Tillmans interrogates the very nature of photography, revealing how–stripped of its traditional apparatus–it can uncover alchemical states of being that exist beyond the everyday scope of our vision.

Produced entirely in the darkroom, the Freischwimmer works are created without the aid of either camera or negative, the result of the manipulation of light sources by the artist over photosensitive paper. Using his hands as stencils, in Freischwimmer 102 Tillmans guides his ephemeral medium across the picture plane, effecting vortexes of rippling violet ink, which unfold in diaphanous skeins of heliotrope, the billowing composition entrenched in the science of its own making. Allowing light to intervene directly with the paper’s chemical surface, Tillmans seeks the essence of photography, harking back to the word’s Greek roots–photos and graphé–which together mean “drawing with light”. The series grapples with the definition of photography, which traditionally reproduces reality. Despite hints at figurative associations in the Freischwimmer–strands of hair, smoke, molecular tissue, or sub-aquatic life–these images have no point of reference other than their own execution; they exist entirely in and of themselves. Tillmans explains, “I am able to speak about physicality in these new pictures, the abstract picture is representational because it exists as a concrete object that represents itself” (W. Tillmans, in J. Verwoert (ed.), Wolfgang Tillmans, London, 2014, p. 154).

Treading the knife’s edge between photography and painting, it is impossible to read Tillmans’s work outside of the legacy of his German predecessors, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, whose extraordinary oeuvres bridge the divide between abstraction and representation. Indeed, Richter’s Abstraktes Bilder in particular provide a compelling point of reference for the Freischwimmer, hinged on chance motions and the autonomy of media. Playing with probability, Tillmans’s photographs are at once a record of the physical trace of their development, and a sensual image, rich with emotive potential. He notes, “It is central to how I work, being open to what’s there and working in this intersection, interplay of intention and chance, control and coincidence. It is important that I do allow both and that I don’t insist on only one rhetoric, on only one method of working…I think art is most interesting when it’s somehow a co-existence of chance and control, of what I know, what I try to control, and what I can’t–for me of course, it’s always somehow about representing what I see with my eyes” (W. Tillmans, in J. Verwoert (ed.), Wolfgang Tillmans, London, 2014, p. 148).

The title of the series–Freischwimmer–refers to the first certificate awarded to children in Germany when they are learning to swim, but it also translates as “swimming freely”, a tribute to the works’ fluidity and freedom of movement. Enlarged to vast proportions, line, color and space are rendered inseparable, unencumbered by composition or perspective. This magnification of the analogue original sees Tillmans engaging with the legacy of American post-war Abstract Expressionist and Color Field painters, such as Morris Louis, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, whose studies of the sublime invoke a phenomenological response in the viewer that finds a photographic equivalent in the Freischwimmer. However, despite their painterly qualities, the Freischwimmer remain unfettered by any one media: they are photographs made without cameras, pools of color made without brushes. Overwhelming the viewer in a fantastical realm of Tillmans’s making, they are visions of a world both familiar and strange–one that exists just beyond the limits of our consciousness. “Good things happen when energy is allowed to flow freely,” observes Tillmans, “and the important thing is striking a balance between accepting life as it is and trying to influence it” (W. Tillmans, in J. Verwoert (ed.), Wolfgang Tillmans, London, 2014, p. 152).

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